How I saved the BBC from the right-wing

Posted by RDN under Climate change / On TV & Radio on 15 November 2012

All right. My headline may be over-egging things a little. Still, I am pretty sure I helped save the BBC from making a fool of itself over climate change politics. (If I’m wrong, and someone in a position to know lets me know in confidence, I’ll cheerfully take this blog down.) The issue is especially interesting to me since I want the BBC to be scrapped but I don’t really share the right’s horror of its supposed left-wing bias or even the current blogosphere outrage at the BBC’s climate coverage.

When I attended the BBC’s “notorious” seminar on climate change in 2006, I had a conversation with a BBC man (I am almost sure a male) who talked to me about plans for a proposed or planned special day of broadcasting on climate change. My impression, and I am sure I could only have had it from this conversation, was that it was to be modelled on the kind of broadcasting which the BBC had done during 2005 on Make Poverty History (including various Richard Curtis enterprises – not least The Girl In a Cafe), and in particular Live 8. My impression was that its plans for activist broadcasting (my words, of course, not the BBC’s) went well beyond the Climate Chaos season in February 2006 which included some coverage I thought pretty poor, including Paul Rose’s Meltdown and not excluding David Attenborough’s later contributions to what turned out to be a year of alarmed broadcasting.

Well, in the event, public indifference, uncertainty and even general apathy remained undented by this onslaught as I suspected it might. My point, made often back then and since, is that one can accept the seriousness of climate change and yet remain sceptical of the usefulness of any plausible policy one might throw at it. At the very least, politicians and broadcasters need to begin with the public’s scepticism and see what it is sensible to say.

That’s why there is a world of difference between making a lot of noise about the science (and the media in general has much preferred a particular, alarmist take on that) and discussion of what should be done.

Full-on activist broadcast assumes that one knows whose policy ideas and ideals to support. That is where the BBC went so wrong with Make Poverty History and might well have compounded its errors with climate change. Some of that activist sort of approach was later (2007) quite seriously criticised by the BBC Trust. At that seminar in 2006, I told this senior BBC person that the BBC would be walking into a shed-load of trouble if it failed to spot that the activist case on climate change involved even more tendentious politics than did debt relief or aid to Africa. I had the impression that no-one had drawn this to his attention before and that he was quite impressed by the argument. Certainly that special did not happen. Indeed, the BBC’s climate change coverage has somewhat improved since. I like to think that I saved the BBC from making a fool of itself. A green activist would doubtless say that I made a coward of a great British institution and a right-winger would say the BBC is still awful.

In passing, I don’t worry that the BBC is left-wing in any significant way. Rather, I think its vaguely soft-left liberal green comfort zone is occasionally quite hazardous to the boisterous taste for the counter-intuitive which most ensures good journalism. (That was part  of the BBC Trust’s thinking in its 2007 report, and whether or not the Trust was being disingenuous, I share it.)

Indeed, I am for scrapping the BBC because I think its state-mandated funding mechanism is bad for social development and because its state-mandated impartiality inclines it to a vague non-specific dissidence and to a vague quest for some liberal touchstone of decency. I am not all sure that being a social good-egg is what journalism is about.

9 comments

  • Written by jules on 16/11/12 at 1:03 am:

    How curious, whilst the denial-sphere is outraged and Delingpole rattles the monkeys cage a site and writer with the inside story seems remarkably quiet. Whilst I count myself as one of those soft green liberals [and actually sympathies with quite of a few of your views] I respect your scepticism on AGW although disagree. The majority of climate ‘skeptics’ seem to prefer their opinion makers to be a little more extreme which is rather telling.

    Please…next time you’re offered the BBC slot to counter George Monbiot or Caroline Lucas please take it otherwise it will be that ghastly runt Delingpole. Give me a decent argument I disagree with any day.

  • Written by tby on 03/12/12 at 1:21 pm:

    Over my years of gently disbelieving the extremes of the alarmist position, I have settled into a political position not too far from how Richard describes the BBC here – slightly left-liberal, with the eco values falling squarely into the “trying to be a thoroughly nice chap” area.

    I’ve always thought that the BBC was well-meaning but has become too proscriptive about the narrow range of views it considers as “nice chap” territory – the demonizing of people who simply share a different conclusion to the evidence has been driven by journalists being too close to activists. It’s gone too far, now the BBC as aspirant nice chaps are using all sorts of Machiavellian strategies to get there.

  • Written by JohnG on 03/12/12 at 2:26 pm:

    The whole point is not about the BBC’s bias, that’s obvious. It’s about the fact that the BBC lied to us about the people who attended that meeting and then tried desperately to cover it up in exactly the same way they tried to cover the Saville scandal. It means that they can no longer be relied upon to speak the truth on anything and therefore cease to be a creditable disseminator of any sort of information.

  • Written by Billy Blofeld on 03/12/12 at 2:31 pm:

    What I dislike about the BBC, is that unlike any other media organisation, the BBC’s collective political opinion or stand-point pervades ALL broadcast content in, in all genres.

    With the BBC, you can be watching an excellent documentary about ‘Dry Stone Walling’ one minute and the next minute….. you know it’s going to happen….. the presenter says something like “but this way of life is now very much under threat” and you find that you weren’t actually watching a documentary about dry stone walling at all. Instead you’ve find out you’ve just been watching another global warming programme….

  • Written by James P on 03/12/12 at 2:57 pm:

    “I like to think that I saved the BBC from making a fool of itself”

    Really? In which case, I shudder to think what it might have been like otherwise!

  • Written by Newminster on 03/12/12 at 3:21 pm:

    I agree with Billy Blofeld and it’s not necessarily always global warming. It seems that every documentary has to have a “moral” and global warming is very much the moral of the moment, but any modern science programme (except those produced in co-operation with the OU, and sometimes even those) appears to be aimed at eight-year-olds and anything dealing with what might loosely be termed the countryside has a sort of running undercurrent which simply demonstrates the presenter’s ignorance of anything beyond the M25.
    They don’t usually say, “aren’t these people/habits/customs quaint?” but you can see them thinking it.
    And their general understanding of anything scientific is so abysmal that it’s hardly surprising that on any scientific subject they simply assume that because “a scientist says” it must be true. Nobody else, except possibly their eco-warrior friends, gets that sort of free ride.

  • Written by Doubting Rich on 03/12/12 at 4:59 pm:

    Jules

    “The majority of climate ‘skeptics’ [sic] seem to prefer their opinion makers to be a little more extreme which is rather telling.”

    No, we just want it recognised that there are differences of opinion, and that the science is not settled, the debate barely started let alone over. In my view of the science (I have a degree in Earth Sciences from a world-class university, so am well-equipped to understand and judge what I see) the science actually favours the side the BBC disagrees with, but I would not seek, as did the BBC, to silence those who disagree with me.

    The BBC not only did so, but did it on the advice of 25 people who are activists, had a financial interest in CAGW panic or are journalists with a record of showing pro-CAGW stance and only 3 scientists, all of whom have a financial interest in supporting the CAGW hypothesis and gain prestige and position from this, all of whom have a record only of supporting the CAGW hypothesis not of challenging or testing it. None of whom, apparently, is confident enough in his case to be challenged in his views.

    Their argument was “shut up”.

    The BBC then lied that these were 28 of the greatest authorities on the issue, and spent vast sums of licence-payers’ money to hide this lie.

    Their argument was “shut up”.

  • Written by geronimo on 03/12/12 at 5:04 pm:

    I too have no problem with the BBC’s leaning left, that’s not my issue. My issue is that the BBC, or rather, Radio 4 and the political programmes, seems to be entirely staffed by people with the same beliefs and attitudes as the characters in Love Actually and Notting Hill. They represent a small minority of left leaning bien pensant views and are always fair to “progressives” (“progressive means you don’t mind 2000 children dying from malaria every day provided the little birdies don’t get sore throats). There are all sorts of left (and for that matter right) wing worldviews, the BBC has narrowed their output down to the views of the metro elite.

  • Written by MarkB on 03/12/12 at 11:58 pm:

    “In passing, I don’t worry that the BBC is left-wing in any significant way. ”

    The pig, on his way to the slaughterhouse, thinks the farmer is a nice man, if sometimes bossy.

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